Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Byzantine State under Justinian I (Justinian the Great)

The nearly forty-year reign of Emperor Justinian I (born 482; reign 527–65) (99.35.7406) heralded extensive territorial expansion and military success, along with a new synthesis of Greco-Roman and Christian culture seen at all levels of Byzantine culture.

Justinian’s rise to imperial power began in 527 with his appointment as co-emperor to Justin I, his uncle, who died later that same year. His sole rule was characterized by profound efforts to strengthen the empire and return the state to its former ancient glory. To this end, Justinian drew upon administrators and counselors from outside the aristocratic class. His own modest origins, along with his selection of these court members, contributed to lasting tensions with the Byzantine nobility. This situation was exacerbated by Justinian’s authoritarian approach to governance, and his pronouncement that the emperor’s will was law further undermined the authority of the city’s senate as well as its factions.

Popular outrage at Justinian’s policies crystallized in the Nika Riot (“Nika!” meaning “Conquer!”) in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, during the period January 11–19, 532. This period of civil unrest resulted in the burning of several important religious and imperial buildings, including Constantinople’s cathedral, the fourth-century Church of Hagia Sophia (the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God), Hagia Eirene (the Church of Peace), the Chalke, or Bronze, Gate to the imperial palace, and the baths of Zeuxippus. The resulting damage to Constantinople’s palatine and religious center at the southeastern end of the city would allow Justinian an opportunity for extensive rebuilding in the years to follow.

In the religious sphere, Justinian took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he fought to extinguish the last vestiges of Greco-Roman paganism, to root out Manichaeans and Samaritans, and to oppose competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites. Justinian also came into direct conflict with the papacy in 543, further straining relations between the western and eastern territories of his empire.

In foreign policy, Justinian sought to recover regions lost to foreign invaders, particularly Germanic tribes in Italy and North Africa. He thus launched one of the most aggressive military programs in medieval history. As a result of his reconquest of the empire’s former western territories, he restored Ravenna’s status as a capital in Italy. Mosaic portraits of Justinian and his wife, the empress Theodora, appear there at the Church of San Vitale (526–48). By his death in 565, the empire bordered nearly the entire Mediterranean Sea, a size unrivalled in Byzantine history from that point onward. Conquest and territorial reorganization were paralleled by reforms in state taxation and legislation, the latter codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis (Corpus of Civil Law), a text that today forms part of the foundation of the Western legal system.

Justinianic Art and Architecture
Justinian’s reign is further distinguished by an exceptional record of architectural and artistic patronage and production. Following the Nika Riot of 532, the emperor initiated a program of urban construction that aimed to remake the ancient capital founded by Constantine the Great in 324. Justinian’s architectural efforts in the capital are memorialized in the treatise “On the Buildings,” written by Justinian’s court historian Procopius.

The rebuilding of Hagia Sophia from 532 to 537 was the paramount achievement of Justinian’s building campaigns. As the capital’s cathedral and the most important church during the empire’s long history, the new Hagia Sophia rebuilt by Justinian set a standard in monumental building and domed architecture that would have a lasting effect on the history of Byzantine architecture. The church’s designers, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, are among the few Byzantine architects whose names have been recorded. Their training in engineering, physics, and mathematics was essential in achieving the cathedral’s revolutionary new design, combining a massive rectangular basilica with a dome resting on pendentives and supported by piers. Hagia Sophia’s monumental scale and soaring domed surfaces rendered a program of figural decoration nearly impossible to execute, and thus it has been suggested that the sixth-century mosaic program featuring primarily cross and vegetal designs was planned with the building’s exceptional proportions in mind. Completing the church’s interior decorative program were variegated marbles gathered from across the empire. These were fashioned into floor and wall paneling, elegant columns, and finely sculpted capitals bearing the monograms of Justinian and his wife Theodora. In addition to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, Justinian patronized over thirty churches in the capital of Constantinople and both ecclesiastical and secular building throughout the empire’s territories, even as far as Mount Sinai in Egypt.

Along with tremendous patronage in monumental building and decoration, the portable arts also flourished during the age of Justinian. During his reign, silk production was introduced to Byzantine lands from China, an art form for which Byzantium would soon become famous throughout the medieval world. Pairs of luxury carved ivory panels, known as diptychs, continued to be made as imperial gifts and to commemorate the tenure of a consul in Constantinople or Rome. Justinian’s name and titles in Latin, along with elegantly carved lions’ heads and classicizing acanthus forms, decorate the Metropolitan’s own pair of diptychs commemorating the emperor’s consulship in 521. A stunning equestrian portrait of the emperor, blessed by Christ, survives on another such deluxe ivory from a diptych pair, now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

In the realm of icon painting, Justinian’s reign is distinguished as one which produced a number of the earliest surviving painted icons on wooden panel. The majority of these are today found in the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, and they are executed in the encaustic technique (pigment suspended in hot wax), following the traditions of Roman and earlier painting in Egypt. Some of these icons at Sinai may have been sent as gifts from the emperor to the monastery, which he patronized. The group represents some of the only examples of portable panel icons to survive from before the Iconoclastic Controversy (726–843).